A Monologue of The Emperor Qian Long (1711-1799).
I bid you welcome to the Summer Palace, and to this, my garden behind the Hall of Paintings. There is no need to kneel, and the eunuchs will not enforce the courtesies tonight. Now that you, Father of the Jesuits, have learned enough Chinese to dine in my presence, we shall dispense with bowing, kowtowing, and the like.
We can speak now, man-to-man, though it best be said as god to man, for unlike your god who is infinitely receding, I am here.
You see, I am capable of jest, and irony is not beyond me.
Yes, I am the Son of Heaven. For as long as I can recall I was the Son of Heaven. My father and grandfather, the Emperors Yong Zheng and Kang Xi, thought themselves so, but they were merely openers of the way. They conquered and pacified, thrust Manchu virtue into the soft Han underside, gave steel where only bamboo had sufficed. But as a result they wasted many years fighting, organizing, dealing in petty affairs.
Of all these efforts, I am the heir. The culmination, if you will. I suppose every English or French gentleman feels the same way. But truly, I am the most interesting person who has ever lived (or so the eunuchs daily remind me).
I have composed, or signed my name to, some forty thousand poems. Well-schooled in martial arts, I can break a man in two, bare-handed. Can anyone in Europe make a similar boast?
I hunt. The deer tremble. The worthy ones come right up to me, as I ready my bow. It is rather sad to kill them, but it is expected of me.
I make war. I merely nod, and the generals rush out. Unruly tribes flee back to their borders.
Are these things not beautiful? I ordered brought out some of the best bronzes, and jars and vases from the Song and Ming periods. But the present work is the best. My name and seal are on ten thousand vases.
Thank you for commenting on my youth and health. I am still in my prime, and all the best foods and medicines keep me so. My visage has been painted by European as well as Han.
My armies have gone as far as Lhasa, now, whose Dalai Lama bows to me —
What’s that? Disaster in Burma? Vietnam refusing to bend the knee?
You are impertinent, Holy Father — I did not know your spies were that effective. But time will tell. The tiger who lives longest eats everything. But here, the servants come with tea, dainties and dumplings. Let us leave politics, and speak of other things. Acquiring Tibet is quite something, almost like taking a little Rome. You know I have even learned to speak Tibetan, and their Yellow Church priests shall be in charge of my tomb when Heaven takes me home.
But tell me true, Jesuit Father, how just as the Manchu conquered the Han, yet all of China has ravished me with its art and music and poetry. I scarcely have time for war. Does not your little god pall before the sight of our mountains, the mists on the Yellow River?
You eat like a Chinaman. I see the way you eye that eunuch (I will send him ’round with the remainder of the dumplings if that pleases you? It does?) It is intriguing to know you savor pleasures not permitted by your musty book. We have seen you hovering around the opera house, you know. I have no objection.
Is China not the world’s true center? Not Rome! Although I ban your faith and god, and god’s wife, and son, and those ever-bleeding saints are not permitted here — you stay.
You collect our pottery, Song, Tang, Yuan, and Ming. Calligraphy eludes you and yet two hundred scrolls of painted landscapes have found their way into the Jesuit dwelling. Tell me, does China not always win, like a great concubine, by merely standing by in beauty? I am not becoming a Christian majesty, but you are at the dining hall, wielding chopsticks over roast duck!
Now, walk this way with me — hand me the cricket jar, Old Chen! — and we shall see in this otherwise barren rock garden, one standing stone. Gongshi, we call these — how weathered and worn and full of cavities it is! Step up to the boundary of crushed cinnabar and look close!
They come! They come! Cringe not, for those thirteen scorpions are bound to the stone and the gravel around it. It is their universe. Have you ever seen scorpions so big?
Wonder you may how I have ruled for sixty years; how none have raised a hand against me and succeeded.
One duke, one general, one martial arts fanatic, two who called themselves my brothers and blood-princes, four who put up banners and called me usurper: see how they scurry away from my shadow! Emirs and khans and kings, four I did not behead or slice, now wriggle here and rip at another’s bodies with fangs and venomed tails.
The one on top? You know I had three empresses, consorts fifteen, and half a dozen concubines. Only one was bad, and there she basks. Nothing would please her more than progeny. A concubine, the only female on a rock island with twelve male reprobates.
They ought to be all over each other. But they will have nothing to do with her. Ironic, no?
They will go on this way forever, so long as my hand feeds them now and then. Watch, as I lift this jar that contains their dinner, as I rattle the lid just ever so slightly, like cats they come running.
Step back — the cinnabar line is poison to them and they cannot pass it.
Old Chen, come hold the Jesuit Father up. He seems a little dizzy.
Now, now, come to your senses. Is your taste too fine to witness thirteen scorpions fight over and eat a solitary cricket? You who contemplate seven stations of torture for your bleeding god? It is only an insect. It is their favorite food. See, they made quick work of it.
The dumplings, perhaps, have made you sleepy. Rest on this garden seat. Is this not like the place you call Purgatory, where evil-doers reside on a mount of their iniquities? Just such a thing, in miniature, a Daoist master made here for me.
Come, take a look in the jar, as I uncover the victim.
What say you? Empty?
Why so it is.
Look deeper, Father of the foreign devils’ god. Slough off your priestly robes, your cross and jewelry.
Do you not feel the change?
Catch him, old Chen! And throw those rags away.
I am the Son of Heaven. I have always been the Son of Heaven. I am the most interesting man who has ever lived.
And you, Holy Father — whom I hold in my hand and toss into the hungry horde —you are a cricket.